Designing the Horizon

On September 15th the Design Business Association (DBA) held what we believe will be the first of several ‘DBA Design Horizons’ events. Covering three topics of real importance for the future of the creative industries, the event was billed as a platform for open conversation between expert panels and audience.

Never one to shy away from asking a question or two, Brand Consultant Merlin Duff, based out of our new London office, went along to join the debate.

I always look forward to events organised by the DBA; they’re well organised, engaging, topical, and full of like-minded people from the creative industries ‘fighting the good fight’ and championing the importance of design to business. September’s ‘Design Horizons’ event (hopefully the first in a series) however looked to be of particular interest. Covering three engaging topics each with their own panel of industry experts, and taking an open forum format, the event presented a chance to help shape the future of the creative industries. I couldn’t wait.

Design in the Boardroom

The first topic for discussion was the role of design in the boardroom, or the increasing significance of design at the core of an organisation, and featured a panel that included Tom Evans (Founder, BleepBleeps), Clive Grinyer (Director of Customer Experience, Barclays), Michael Winslow (Managing Partner, S P Consultancy) and Deborah Dawton (Chief Executive, DBA).

Following a short overview of their opinions, the topic was opened up to the floor and the questions and comments came flooding in. By the time this first hour-long session was over, the room had reached something of a consensus:

For design to sit at or near the top table and at the heart of an organisation, it has to prove its value.

  • Over the last few decades, there has been a general trend towards the movement of ‘design’ away from the peripheries of organisations and towards the centre.
  • This has largely been due to an increased awareness of ‘design’ in the public-eye, itself stemming from the ‘corporate branding’ boom of the 1970’s and 80’s and the results.
  • This shift towards the centre, has seen ‘design’ briefs focus less on the purely superficial (i.e. shape of product, style of leaflet, colours of interior) and more on the organisation itself (i.e. strategic repositioning, organisational structure, internal communications).
  • For design to continue to sit at or near the top table and at the heart of an organisation however, it has to continue to prove its value. That is to say, its effect has to be measurable and it must remain focused on achieving organisational goals. The moment design becomes superficial, is the moment it will be relegated to the sidelines once again.


Design Thinking vs. Design Doing

This fed directly into the next topic for discussion; the separation over recent years of Design Thinking as an activity distinct from Designing (Design Doing). With a panel that included Luis Cilimingras (Managing Director, IDEO), Dr Alison Prendiville (Senior Design Researcher, University of the Arts), Kim Colin (Partner, Industrial Facility), and Jeremy Myers (Director and Chair, The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design), this proved a particularly divisive topic. The room fell into two camps broadly defined as those from design backgrounds and those from others:

  • The designers in the room stood firm in their belief that Design is an activity of both Doing and Thinking, the two intertwined and inseparable in every way. They argued that a true designer is able to balance left and right brain, Thinking and Doing together and in equal measure.
  • Those from different backgrounds however leant towards a clearer separation between the two with several people pointing out their ability to solve problems through thought, without having the ability/skill to then fully implement their solutions through action. They pointed out that whilst a ‘perfect’ designer may strike a balance of left and right brain, examples of this are few and far between. Most people are dominated by the one-side of their brain, and thus are ‘logical’ or ‘creative’.
  • It was also suggested that Design Thinking was just a new phrase for design, coined to make it more accessible at the boardroom level and back we went into the issues covered in the first discussion.

Design must include thinking and doing if it is to be of effective value.

Whilst we couldn’t reach a consensus on the exact issue here, the room was clear that what mattered most was that design as a whole delivered value beyond its cost. Thinking without doing is just planning, and doing without thinking is just action; whether the activity of an individual or a team, design must include thinking and doing if it is to be of effective value.

A New Kind of Consultancy

After a quick break (by now all brains in the room were struggling), we entered the final topic for discussion, the one most relevant to ourselves at Wonderstuff; the emergence of the ‘Strategic Innovation Consultancy’. The panel consisted of Anna-Lisa Wesley (Director of Customer, Digital, and Innovation, Baringa Partners), John Oswald (Global Business Design Director, Fjord), and Kevin McCullagh (Founder, Plan), all individuals working within ‘Strategic Innovation Consultancies’.

Now like most of the room and I’m sure most of you, I didn’t know what a Strategic Innovation Consultancy was. Indeed that’s where the conversation started, with a definition and some examples. Long story short, it turns out that Strategic Innovation Consultancy is one of many names for the new breed of design-led business-focused consultancy that has appeared over the past decade or so, a category of consultancy that we ourselves at Wonderstuff would broadly fall into.

A final key point to note here is the difference between these Strategic Innovation Consultancies and traditional Business/Management Consultancies (Accenture, KPMG, Deloitte, etc). This was explained as follows;

  • Management Consultancies focus on removing the risk from situations (i.e. cost cutting)
  • Strategic Innovation Consultancies focus on embracing the risk in situations (i.e. value adding)

Strategic Innovation Consultancies focus on embracing the risk in situations (i.e. value adding)

With this made clear, it became apparent that a lot of the discussion that came out of the first two topics (design in the boardroom, and the distinction between design thinking and doing) was relevant here too.

  • Design stays in the boardroom when the boardroom understands its impact.
  • ‘Design’ means to many things to too many people and is ambiguous as to whether it refers to thinking or doing. As such it is an exclusive term. ‘Design thinking’ is therefore preferred at the boardroom level, as it is a more accessible term.
  • Strategic Innovation Consultancies work at boardroom level engaging with an organisations decision makers by focusing on an organisations goals and the use of design as an inclusive tool not an exclusive activity (design thinking, over design doing) that will enable the achievement of these goals.
  • In this way, design is used strategically to drive innovation (new thinking, products, developments, etc) and forward development the organisation.


And that was that; with this new breed to consultancy demystified, the event was over. Brains melted, and bellies rumbling, we listened as Deborah Dawton (Chief Executive DBA) summarised the afternoons discussions, before heading to a pub nearby to refuel and continue the discussion.

All in all it was a fascinating event. One that delivered on its promises and helped solidify the position of the Design Business Association as one of the design industries most important organisations; unafraid to ask the tough questions, and to lead the charge into the future.